The Argonaut Interview: Karin Hall
By Gary Walker
Stepping into the shoes of a well-known leader at any organization is usually difficult. Following two respected leaders can be doubly hard.
That is the situation that Karin Hall found herself in a little more than six months ago when she took over the reins at Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay. Mark Gold, the environmental organization’s former president, stepped down Jan. 27 for a position at his alma mater, UCLA.
Hall, the environmental non-profit’s executive director, has been with Heal the Bay for 10 years. She is in charge of the strategic direction for the organization and its day-to-day management. Her experience prior to coming to Heal the Bay was as a senior advertising executive at several prominent national advertising firms.
The organization was created by Gold’s mentor, Dorothy Green, in 1988 and quickly became one of the region’s top environmental leaders, known for initiatives such as its annual Beach Report Card.
In an interview with The Argonaut, Hall talked about how she is carrying on the legacy of Green and Gold, a new stormwater campaign that will be enacted on her watch, Heal the Bay’s legislative wins and the role that it hopes to play during the pending restoration of the Ballona Wetlands.
You stepped into some impressive shoes when you assumed the day-to-day leadership role at Heal the Bay. What convinced you that you were ready to take the reins?
We put a transition plan in place for Mark about six years ago in case he ever decided to leave. So the platform to be able to make the transition as well as highlight areas of growth for other directors and our staff was in place.
This year, our director of the (Santa Monica Pier) Aquarium left simultaneously when Mark was leaving, so there have been some changes that in many ways have been real opportunities for the organization.
People like (water quality director) Kirsten James have taken on more now that Mark has left, and the same for (coastal resources director) Sara Sikich. They’ve been able to step up and take on more and from a growth standpoint for all of our directors as well as our board and myself, it’s a really nice opportunity to look forward to the future for Heal the Bay.
Can you talk a little about the importance of your legislative advocacy and specifically the movement to ban single-use plastic bags in California? (Nearly 50 municipalities, including Santa Monica and Los Angeles, have passed prohibitions on single-use plastic bags and activists are continuing to pursue a statewide ban).
This is the year to do it. On the legislative side, Heal the Bay has had a long history of trying to understand the importance of trying to decide what is the best way to effect change. Sometimes it’s on the local level working with municipal governments and sometimes it’s on the statewide level working with different agencies.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to pass the plastic bag ban bill at the state level, but what we did was we went city by city, county by county to have them pass their own bans. Then it was seeded into the public and people really accepted it and it resonated with them in coastal and inland areas.
We also began to build collaborations that were somewhat unusual, like with the grocers associations, and we built relation-ships with commercial workers because oftentimes they’re the ones who are at the back of the line and we wanted them to have a voice in this as well as a number of environmental groups.
We’re very excited about (the possibility of a statewide ban). While there is still some opposition, we think this is the year to pass it.
Heal the Bay has a new stormwater initiative called “Take L.A. by Storm.” Could you elaborate on it? Stormwater runoff has been one of your organization’s focal points for a long time.
This is really about making sure that the city’s new permit through the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board is as strong as it can possibly be as it covers decades in the future. We also want it to adhere to what we think is a mandate from the Clean Water Act. We are now trying to make sure that the general public can weigh in on it as we have and make sure that a variety of our constituents know about it and that they will be impacted by it long-term.
Will Heal the Bay be participating in the public process involving the restoration process for the Ballona Wetlands?
Absolutely. We will be commenting on it and we will continue to play the ‘Heal the Bay’ role. Whatever the project concept is going to be, we will play a role in that with the hope that the outcome is the importance of water quality in the Ballona Wetlands.
Ultimately, that’s what our goal is.
Do you think that some of the water quality testing that Heal the Bay is conducting at Malibu Lagoon can be simulated to Ballona, if it is successful?
The good thing about Malibu Lagoon is that it is a very quick time period that the restoration is happening there. And after all of the rhetoric and everything else that happened there, we hope that the water quality will be demonstrably better and that the wetlands there have the opportunity to actually be a wetlands.
And we hope that experience can translate to other wetlands like Ballona. I think this will be a really great example of how an effective restoration plan can work on the ecosystem.
I realize that there is a lot of drama already around (the restoration) but we’re going to move exactly as we always have: based in science and the best possible outcomes for making sure that the wetlands will be the natural lung of the ocean.
Heal the Bay has also been active in schools throughout Los Angeles, including the Westside.
We have programs that cross over the entire school careers of our youth in Los Angeles County, starting with our (aquarium at Santa Monica Pier). About 70,000 kids come to the aquarium each year and we do mostly grant based, subsidized Title I classes with a lot of kids that come from places that have never seen the ocean or the animals in the ocean.
We also collaborate with teachers on a range of curriculum to choose from that is tied to state standards as well as our Educational Environment Initiatives woven into what they learn at the aquarium so they can take that back to their classrooms and to their neighborhoods for that direct action piece so that it resonates with them.
We’re trying to be as creative and inspirational as possible and explore partnerships with schools all across Los Angeles.
One of the recurring things that I’ve heard from you is collaboration – that seems to be one of your guiding principles.
We can’t do any of this alone. We can often play a science-based role or an education-based role, but there’s so much more that needs to be done and a lot of it is controversial and needs support. And we’ve found during the years that while it’s important that a group provides that leadership, we cannot live without partnerships and we still feel that is super important to us.
This is obviously not an easy position that you’re in, taking over the helm of a well-known and respected environmental organization. But its seems like you’re having a good time.
What would you say is the fun part of your job?
The fun part is seeing (initiatives) go from being an idea to fruition. Sometimes it’s hard to keep your eye on it because it can take a long time to come to fruition, but we’ve had a lot of amazing wins over the last couple of years.
Of course, leadership of this organization is a huge responsibility. I understand that we have not only an incredible legacy but also that we have so much work to do. Clearly, I’m not a scientist, but we have built this organization with amazing, credible scientific force and great educational force. And together, we will be able to accomplish our mission and our goals, but done in a different way.
More so than ever, the environment needs to have an advocate.¤